Can Infrastructure Keep America Competitive?

Monday, September 12, 2016

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By Site Selection Magazine

Infrastructure is on the minds of most world leaders, and some of the world’s thought leaders. Among several recent books on the topic, the biggest splash has come from technology historian and engineer Henry Petroski in The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure. Here, in an exclusive contribution, the Duke University professor, BBC/PBS presenter and author of such books as The Pencil and To Engineer Is Human offers his unique perspective on where the roads, rivers, railroads, ports, airports and networks in the US are taking us, funding obstacles ahead, and the implications for corporate location decision-makers and policymakers.

Adequate infrastructure has always been a very important factor in making a city and its environs attractive and hospitable to business interests. And the absence of key infrastructure can leave a city at the mercy of competitors.

In the mid-nineteenth century, St. Louis was in danger of losing out to Chicago as a gateway to the West because it did not have a railroad bridge across the Mississippi River. And Brooklyn might have remained a city distinct from New York much longer than it did had the Brooklyn Bridge not provided a reliable link between them.

In the early twentieth century, San Francisco Bay was becoming choked with ferry boat traffic, placing a physical limit on growth. It was only the construction of the Golden Gate and San Francisco–Oakland Bay bridges in the 1930s, and the Interstate highway system that followed decades later, that opened up the enormous potential of that area, including Silicon Valley and the Port of Oakland, which has become a key West Coast port for transpacific container shipping.

But bridges, which can serve as metaphors for infrastructure generally, can also be hindrances to retaining old and attracting new business to an area. The Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, being North America’s busiest international border crossing, is also a well-known bottleneck. Debates and lawsuits over building alternate routes have complicated site selection in the area.

On the East Coast, the 85-year-old Bayonne Bridge, whose steel arch arcs across a narrow reach into the container shipping hub in Newark Bay, has too low a clearance to allow passage of the larger and taller ships now able to transit through the recently expanded Panama Canal. The technically unprecedented and expensive project of raising the bridge’s roadway is underway, as are port and harbor deepening projects up and down the East Coast to make them hospitable to receiving the gigantic new ships and their cargo.

A similar situation exists at the entrance to Tampa Bay, where the Sunshine Skyway Bridge blocks the way to ever taller container and cruise ships. Countless cities are faced with multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects to remove such obstacles to attracting business and trade.

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Category: Site Selection Magazine, News



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